15.201 the tyranny of the monograph

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Date: Sun Aug 26 2001 - 05:05:40 EDT

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 15, No. 201.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

             Date: Thu, 23 Aug 2001 08:46:28 +0100
             From: scaife@uky.edu
             Subject: [STOA] Rescue Tenure From the Tyranny of the Monograph

    This article from The Chronicle of Higher Education
    (http://chronicle.com) was forwarded to you from: scaife@uky.edu

        From the issue dated April 20, 2001

        Rescue Tenure From the Tyranny of the Monograph


         Call the ambulance, the patient is dying! That urgent appeal
        needs to go out -- and quickly -- to two groups: college
        administrators and scholars in the humanities. I make the
        appeal as a publisher, a reader, and a humanist. I hold books
        sacred and hate to see them losing their value, which is
        exactly what they are doing today, rapidly. The currency of
        books is becoming deflated in a way that is reminiscent of the
        decline of the German deutsche mark in the early 1920's, and
        the culprit is the same: hyperinflation. Our system of book
        publishing, which rests on the premise that we promote people
        who publish, is spiraling out of control. Indeed, the whole
        system needs to be changed.

        The problem is that university presses are publishing books
        that they should be turning down. It is not that the books are
        unworthy; just that they do not justify the expenditure of
        time and money that goes into them. So my question to
        administrators and humanists is the same: Why do any of you --
        I mean us -- want this system to go on?

        The system produces many excellent scholars, but it does so in
        spite of, not because of, itself. The exaggerated emphasis on
        the publication of books pushes young scholars to go on record
        earlier and earlier, with less and less to say. That is not
        good for colleges and universities, and it is not good for
        scholarship. Furthermore, overproduction conceals an identity
        crisis in the humanities that has been developing for the past
        30 years, but one that we dare not continue to ignore.

        I think that the patient is terminally ill. We mislead those
        in positions of authority, like deans and the heads of tenure
        committees, who take the books we publish as a stamp of
        authority, and we delude the young who keep on preparing books
        to get tenure, if we don't face the current realities of
        academic publishing. What we should be doing is thinking about
        ways to prepare for the death of the tenure monograph in the
        humanities, and to counsel those who will soon be grieving.
        That could provide us with a great occasion to redirect the
        efforts of not just the young but also their elders, if they
        -- I mean we -- dare to reconsider our situation.

        Some defenders of the monograph dismiss talk of its demise.
        The obituaries are little more than wishful thinking, they
        say, stemming more from discomfort with new types of
        scholarship than with reality. I agree that a fair amount of
        the bellyaching about ever more esoteric monographs with ever
        fewer readers has come from people who just wish that the
        likes of deconstruction, feminism, gay studies, and
        postcolonial studies would go away. But that doesn't change
        the fact that we have a crisis.

        Yes, we academic publishers increased the number of titles we
        produced throughout the 1990's, according to annual figures
        prepared for the Association of American University Presses.
        But the increase could well be seen as a desperate effort to
        keep dollar income up at a time when per-title sales are flat
        in scholarly publishing. Dollar income has often increased at
        presses, but that's because publishers are bringing out more
        titles at higher prices.

        I have experience in publishing books in economics,
        philosophy, literature, anthropology, and law. In economics, a
        treatise -- a major effort to synthesize knowledge -- might
        sell 7,500 copies at $50 a copy; major books in literary
        studies -- books that others use as tools in the classroom or
        for their research -- can sell 3,000 to 5,000 copies. But, in
        my experience, monographic studies in the humanities, and I
        definitely include history here, whether written to win tenure
        or later in a career by established giants in the field, now
        usually sell between 275 and 600 copies, no matter how good
        they are. (Paradoxically, outside of literary and historical
        studies, the smaller the field, the higher the sales. Most
        philosophy books sell, in cloth, a minimum of 1,200 copies;
        books in classics do even better.) At Harvard, we figure we
        lose about $10,000 on every book that sells only 500 or so
        copies. So what do we do? We hedge our bets.

        That produces an untenable situation. On one side, we have
        university presses that can afford to publish monographs --
        particularly in the humanities -- only if they can find
        respectable "trade" books that sell enough copies to subsidize
        the books that lose money, or if they find subsidies (in some
        form or another) from their universities to cover their
        losses. On the other side, we have an academy that is
        demanding more and more publications from scholars at a
        younger and younger age.

        Today, in most cases, it seems to be a matter of quantity over
        quality. Quantity is empirical, quality is elusive. The rule
        -- unspoken at some universities and set out in guidelines at
        others -- is getting to be two books for tenure. With the
        decline in tenure-track jobs in many fields, thanks to the use
        of adjuncts, that has led to frenzied behavior on the part of
        graduate students now trying to multiply the number of
        publications on their C.V.'s. (Intimations of a little good
        news on the job front certainly aren't enough to change such

        In a recent essay in an M.L.A. newsletter, Profession, "No
        Wine Before Its Time: The Panic Over Early
        Professionalization," Cary Nelson, a literary critic, reports
        asking a provost whether the university had any qualms about
        raising the bar and demanding two books for tenure. "No," the
        provost replied. "Increasing expectations for tenure only
        proves how good a school we are." But does sheer quantity
        really offer conclusive proof that the enterprise is "good"?

        Above all, the crisis of the monograph is a crisis in
        leadership. From the desperation of some publishers, madly
        producing more new books to stay alive, to the increasing use
        of adjunct professors by universities eager to save money, to
        the demands of tenure committees, you have a lot of factors --
        and a lot of people who should know better -- making a tough
        situation increasingly intolerable.

        It was 10 years ago that another literary critic took me up
        short by coming by our Harvard press booth at a Modern
        Language Association convention and saying, "Lindsay, you must
        be a desperate man." Why? Because, he said, it was clear that
        anything could, by then, be published, and he was wandering
        the aisles in boredom. Another scholar put it to me more
        gently. Some five years ago, I asked an anthropologist if his
        colleagues were reading a book that he had read in manuscript
        and recommended glowingly several years before. "Oh, Lindsay,"
        he said, "don't you know? No one automatically pays attention
        to books anymore." Why? Because potential readers no longer
        assume that, if a publisher went to all the expense of
        bringing out a book, it had to be worth at least poking into.
        Once bored, twice shy.

        The final blow was administered recently by a scholar who said
        out loud what I was beginning to fear. The refereeing system,
        this scholar told me, had become a joke. There are many people
        who take refereeing extremely seriously -- and, from the
        bottom of my heart, I thank those selfless referees I have had
        the privilege to work with -- but there are also many who use
        the opportunity to review a manuscript for a publisher as a
        chance to promote like-minded individuals and friends; and
        there are some publishers who choose readers because they can
        be counted on to provide positive reviews of particular
        projects. That adds up to a general crisis of judgment: Too
        many of us seem to subscribe to the sentiment promoted by the
        Lake Wobegon Chamber of Commerce, assuming that we are all
        above average and, therefore, that severe criticism of one
        another is never in order. But as Lester Bangs might have
        instructed Cameron Crowe well before he was "almost famous,"
        you gotta be ruthless to be a good critic.

        When things come to such a pass -- all of my sources were at
        the top of their fields, not one a slouch or a disgruntled
        malcontent, and I have heard similar complaints from scholars
        in history and art history -- I think some speculation is
        indicated, as well as some changes in practice. The crucial
        point here is that the overproduction of the most endangered
        species in the preserve, the monograph, is a symptom of bigger
        problems in the humanities wing of the university. If you will
        allow me to lapse into the cadence of a preacher: Anxieties
        about authorship and authority have led to the present
        profligacy, in a desperate attempt to win back lost
        legitimacy. But I say unto ye, It is never going to be won
        this way!The problem of the humanities monograph is, mutatis
        mutandis, the problem of the university and what counts for
        knowledge there. Is the university a place where intelligence
        is made manifest? It is, and always has been, a place where
        careerism makes itself manifest. But what about intelligence?

        Just a few years ago, Stanley Fish, then head of the Duke
        press, challenged humanists to buck up and stand tall. Why
        should they be second-class citizens, wearing tweed like
        sackcloth, he asked in an essay on "The Unbearable Ugliness of
        Volvos"? But chutzpah won't be enough to save us now. In a
        university increasingly committed to business values, the
        humanities have grown to be beside the point. The free fall of
        the monograph in the humanities is a symptom of the loss of
        stature of the humanists who write the books. Technology
        transfer, licensing the fruitsof university research -- that's
        the game being played now. More and more, the only interesting
        unit of knowledge is the patent.

        To many of the people who run universities and to many faculty
        members, the humanities are at best a source of confusion, and
        at worst an embarrassment. Can you believe, the woman on the
        street is justifiably asking herself, there are professors of
        literature at major universities now writing books for
        reputable university presses defending sexual harassment of
        their own students? It is as if Bill Clinton were demented
        enough to write an essay for The Atlantic Monthly defending
        his activities with Monica Lewinsky. Scientists, by contrast,
        are turning their departments into "profit centers." He who
        cannot cash in has no cachet, and humanists seldom can.

        The first step we need to take out of this crisis is to
        recognize that the assumption that a humanist needs a book
        (or, more likely, two) is based on a bad analogy. That analogy
        has a history, and we are its prisoners. For more than a
        century, we humanists have been trying to model our behavior
        on that of our scientific colleagues. Anglo-American
        philosophers, for example, have been trying to make their
        discipline look like mathematical logic and scientific
        argumentation. By contrast with the misdirection and moral
        confusion that is spreading self-doubt in the humanities,
        scientists like Steven Weinberg and E. O. Wilson have a strong
        sense of agenda. Wilson's line, which goes by the sweet title
        of "consilience," is that science is the queen of modern
        thought, and he says that those who live in the university
        must choose between one of two and only two roads: scientific
        empiricism -- the road of reason -- or religious
        transcendentalism, which is no road at all, but a maze where
        passion is the only compass. The choice is obvious and
        inevitable. Thus is the social Darwinism of the marketplace
        received with welcome arms into the university.

        The monograph fetish is a prime example of the desire of
        humanists to fit in and be scientists, just like all the rest
        of the Big Men on Campus. That scientists themselves no longer
        cling to the fetish seems to matter not a whit. (As any
        university publisher can tell you, trying to get a book out of
        a scientist has been impossible for decades.) When the modern
        research university took hold in the United States toward the
        end of the 19th century, scientists were writing monographs.
        Why should not humanists do the same? Well, as the crisis of
        the monograph makes it absolutely apparent, because the
        strategy won't work -- and was dangerous all along.

        No one is ever going to mistake us for junior scientists --
        not even if we take to wearing pen protectors in our shirt
        pockets. Yes, we still consider the book valuable, but too
        often not because it is well done. Edward Said was right when,
        in one of his 1999 presidential columns for the M.L.A., he
        chastised humanists for being so hard to understand. No, in
        our profit-driven university, the book is valuable because a
        universitywide committee can understand that it costs a lot of
        money to produce. Even if committee members can glean nothing
        about the book's content, they know that it cost somebody a
        lot of money to publish and, therefore, somebody else a lot of
        effort to mobilize support to get it published. All that's
        true. Books also have the distinction of thumping when you
        drop them on a table, and they stand up in a display case, the
        way an offprint cannot.

        Humanists can do better than this. I am afraid we M.L.A. types
        are a bit like the railwaymen who thought that their job was
        building and maintaining track, train, and station, and not
        moving goods and people. They did not keep their eyes on the
        prize. But just like them, our job in the humanities is moving
        people and understanding what moves them. Why do we want
        people to write? Why do we want to see their writing? Because
        we want authors and readers, alike, to be humanists. An
        old-fashioned word, "humanist," but not outmoded. A humanism
        that dares speak its name speaks in a way that is persuasive
        to humankind.

        Of course, although we in the United States do have a
        particular penchant for the fetishization of the narrow and
        passionless monograph, we have glorious precedent in Europe: I
        remember the shock I felt when I saw the first German edition
        of Walter Benjamin's The Origin of German Tragic Drama. It was
        in an antiquarian shop in Vienna. I don't know why I expected
        it to look like that surrealist publication of his, One-Way
        Street, but it looked just like a scientific monograph meant
        for 275 research libraries.

        In recent years, some people have tried to resuscitate the
        rhetoricians under the new name of "public intellectual." That
        is a welcome development, but we should remember that it
        sounds new and feels urgent only because, for some years now,
        we have subscribed to the very different ideal for the
        practice of intelligence that we know and respect under the
        name "science." Trying to shove our round pegs into science's
        square holes just doesn't work.

        We need to highlight the differences between the humanities
        and the sciences, and we need to get over the vulgar phobia
        about science that hobbles so much humanistic discourse. We
        have to insist on the thing we do -- which is not finding a
        place for ourselves as evolutionary eager beavers in E. O.
        Wilson's flow chart, and which is not just serving the
        almighty green-back. Quite simply, unless we recover our sense
        of overall orientation, we are not going to be able to
        encourage the young to get Ph.D.'s in the humanities. And the
        world will be the poorer for that.

        The reason so many of the book proposals I see from the young
        today fail is because all of the frameworks that would justify
        writing a book seem to have collapsed. People pay lip service
        to interdisciplinary study, but that's about it. (Why else do
        we need all those interdisciplinary humanities centers?)
        Professionalism rejects the notion that it is worthwhile to
        have real expertise in a field of knowledge other than one's
        own. Stanley Cavell tells me that he is certain that the young
        man he was some 50 years ago, when he wanted to switch from
        music (he was being trained as a composer) and was admitted to
        the University of California at Los Angeles to study
        philosophy, would now be rejected by his own Harvard
        philosophy department as too high a risk.

        I find myself spending an increasing amount of time trying to
        persuade the talented that it is worth writing a humanities
        book filled with gusto. I feel bad that some of the really
        interesting young intellectuals -- like those who edit and
        write for the journal Hermenaut, kids passionately interested
        in philosophy, rock 'n' roll, and zine culture -- prefer to
        drive cabs, think, write, and have zilch to do with the
        university. I don't share Bob Dylan's dismissive attitude
        about "the old folks home at the college," because I love the
        university and think a thousand flowers might grow in its

        Sales of individual titles are down for university-press
        publishers not because we are so good and society is so bad,
        but because we can't convince even ourselves that what we are
        doing makes a difference. Humanists buy books because books
        excite them, not out of duty. Our publications need to be more
        like those of Swift and Voltaire -- proper humanistic
        emanations that offer persuasive accounts of the world, no
        matter how much they flaunt their improprieties, rather than
        empty exercises of scientific competence designed to please
        two men in New Haven and no one else in this world.

        The second step we need to take to get out of the crisis of
        the tenure monograph is to consider what should -- and should
        not -- be a monograph. Write we must, but why must it be books
        and not essays? Jerry Green, Harvard's provost in the early
        1990's and an economist, recently asked me why the people in
        many of the disciplines in which I publish want to waste so
        much of the time of young people in the prime of their lives
        with such a lot of make-work. In economics, he said, they want
        to keep the kids working hard to generate new ideas that the
        rest of the profession can feed off of, because youth is the
        leading edge. We need to remember that the humanist ideal of
        publication that flourished for years took the form of books
        and articles. It was embodied in books like Thomas More's
        Utopia, Michel de Montaigne's Essais, Erasmus's Adagia, Wayne
        Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction; and in essays like Jonathan
        Swift's "A Modest Proposal." Think of the people whose best
        work appeared in essay form: Barbara Johnson, Nina Baym, W. K.
        Wimsatt, Cleanth Brooks, T. S. Eliot, Kenneth Burke, William
        Empson, John Freccero, Erich Auerbach, E. R. Curtius, Georg
        Lukacs, Roland Barthes, Jean-Paul Sartre, Paul de Man, Walter
        Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Siegfried Kracauer, Gianfranco
        Contini, Meyer Schapiro, Clement Greenberg. I could go on, but
        won't. You can.

        Sometimes, to make a group of scholars turn on a dime, we need
        a publication not as thick as a brick, but as thin as a dime.
        Something like Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent,"
        Wimsatt's "The Intentional Fallacy," Gayatri Spivak's "Can the
        Subaltern Speak?," John Van Engen's "The Christian Middle Ages
        as an Historiographical Problem."

        The third step we need to take is to recognize just whom and
        what the current system of publishing serves. The benefit of
        the system is that it allows universities to outsource tenure
        decisions to university presses. That looks like a win-win
        situation: Institutions can count on a decentralized
        decision-making system to legitimate the credentials of their
        employees, and the people who love books so much that they
        want to be part of the making of them can get their money for
        doing what delights them, and can get their books free. But
        there are hidden costs here that we have not considered, and
        the bill is coming due.

        My personal concern is this, and it is very personal and may
        seem sentimental: I love books, and I love the humanities, and
        I see anything that undermines their value as a threat. We all
        worry about electronic publications' putting books out of
        existence, but I fear that the overreliance on books by
        bookish people is an equal threat. The sacredness of books is
        not something that needs to be inflated, least of all by the
        people of the book. The idea that you can cook up a book fast,
        the way we used to cook up burgers when I worked at McDonald's
        as a kid, deeply disturbs me. Books should take years to write
        (although, even then, deadlines can help). "You can't hurry
        love," sang the Supremes years ago. Well, you can't hurry
        scholarship, either. Pushing young scholars to publish books
        doesn't lead to more better books. It leads to more books --
        that is, until the system collapses.

        W. H. Auden wrote that the sign of promise in a young poet is
        technical competence, not originality or emotion. The same is
        true, probably, for young scholars. Their work does not need
        to be published with the full fanfare of the book of a mature
        scholar, and there ought to be -- and no doubt are at many
        institutions -- ways of granting tenure to the young person
        who reveals such competence. But the imperative given by
        universities to the untenured to publish promising juvenilia
        as midlist books, and the proliferation of such publications,
        has triggered Gresham's Law, creating a situation in which
        even the best books come to be taken as mere exercises,
        overproduced term papers, just as bad money drives out good.

        My economist friend Jerry Green is right: Why should we
        encourage young humanists to do a lot of Mickey Mouse work, to
        go through the motions, when what they should be trying to
        write are moving essays and -- maybe later than sooner --
        passionate books like Empson's Milton's God?

        The scholarly book has become an endangered species, I
        contend, but not for the reasons most people think of. We have
        put the cart before the horse. People should not be given
        tenure because they have written books; people should be given
        tenure so they have the leisure to develop big projects that
        make good books. In any case, what a university really needs
        to know about a young scholar is whether his or her writing is
        competent and shows promise that the candidate will develop
        into a person who really has something to say. Seen from that
        perspective, the turning of a large percentage of academic
        jobs into adjunct positions is hastening a waning of
        scholarship that is already taking place.

        Lastly, we need to rethink who should be evaluating scholars
        and scholarship. Why leave it to book publishers? Maybe we
        should consider independent bureaus, financed by the leading
        professional organization in each discipline, to do the work
        of judging. Alternatively, and probably preferably, we might
        actually bring evaluation back into the department. If the
        system has so evolved -- as I think it has -- that departments
        can avoid direct appraisal and criticism of a colleague's work
        by farming out that labor, is that good? If things were to
        change, scholars might have to learn to be directly critical
        of a candidate's ideas; the candidate might have to rebut
        criticism, publicly if possible. (Many departments do ask
        candidates to give a public lecture, but real discussion there
        is scarce.) That might lead to a system closer to the one that
        prevailed in the medieval university, with disputations among
        scholars; and that, in turn, might have the big payoff of
        making scholarship more public and evaluation less something
        that goes on somewhere else -- at the faculty board of a
        distant university press, or behind closed doors at home.
        Students might even love it.

        What I am urging is that publishers get more selective, and
        also that they help scholars figure out how to write books
        that will appeal to a broader audience than at present.
        Surely, scholars ought to at least be able to explain what
        they are doing in general-enough terms in their introductions
        that people outside their fields can see what is at stake. I
        don't tout massive shrinking of lists, but I do long for
        better books. During the years that we could publish
        monographs with impunity (and please bear in mind, that was
        not yesterday), we all became too complacent.

        If we can salvage anything from the present crisis of the
        monograph in the humanities, let it be that we humanists see
        that our lot is with rhetoric and not science; that ideas --
        and young people -- need nurturing. If we can do that, we
        would have much to be grateful for.

        Lindsay Waters is executive editor for the humanities at the
        Harvard University Press. His book Against Authoritarian
        Aesthetics: Towards a Politics of Experience has just been
        published in Putong Hua by Peking University Press.


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